VP Osinbajo’s Speech At The Virtual Edition Of NASFAT Youth Seminar
SPEECH BY HIS EXCELLENCY, PROF. YEMI OSINBAJO, SAN, GCON, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA, AT THE NASFAT YOUTH VIRTUAL INDEPENDENCE SEMINAR, ON THE 1st OF OCTOBER, 2020
Let me begin by saying how delighted I am to have been invited to this virtual Independence Day seminar on this auspicious occasion of the 60th independence anniversary of Nigeria.
Independence Day is as much an opportunity for reflection as it is an occasion for celebration. Our Diamond Jubilee as a nation rightfully demands commemoration as a significant milestone in our national odyssey. While we celebrate how far we have come, the sixtieth anniversary of our independence provides an opportunity for us to reflect upon where we are, how far we have left to go and what sort of country we want to be.
I am particularly gratified to be reflecting on and envisioning our possibilities with young Nigerians because both the present and future belong to you. There will be no shortage of commentary today and I have heard already from the introductory remarks about the last sixty years and some will see in these decades, a trajectory of dashed hopes, some will see unfulfilled expectations and serial disillusion. I am sure I am not alone in disagreeing with such a bleak view of our history, because despite the onerous challenges we face, we have endured as a people and there is still so much that I believe should give us reason to face the future with hope.
While it is entirely apt to review our journey and look back at where we are coming from, I think it is also fitting to contemplate the future. Whatever our varied perspectives on the contours of our nation’s journey maybe, we can agree that the past sixty years are now firmly in the past, having irretrievably occurred and now belong in the annals of history. The greatest disservice we can do to ourselves is to be shackled by our history. The past is a ghost that may remind us and not frighten us. What is within our power and what we must avert our minds to is the task of harvesting the ample lessons of our past and shaping the next sixty years.
The topic I have been asked to speak on is compelling because it is a description of our collective dream and the idealized end-state towards which we are aspiring: a united, peaceful and prosperous country. Scarcely, anyone would disagree with these goals, what we have disagreed on historically is the means of achieving this end-state or these goals.
The topic invites us to contemplate the concepts of unity, peace and prosperity. A nation cannot attain prosperity without development and it cannot engage in development without peace. This I think, makes perfect sense.
Developmental activities are impossible to conduct in a climate of conflict, except for mercenaries and gun-runners. Investors, whether local and foreign, are repelled by violence-prone environments. Investors cannot be attracted to places where the sanctity of life, the safety of livelihoods and the inviolability of property rights, cannot be guaranteed. Except the tentative peace of the suppressed, there can be no real peace without justice. Indeed, it has been said that peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice. Both peace and unity are outcomes and the condition predicate for both is justice.
In our context, justice includes the notions of fairness, equity, equality and it is significant that our Constitution is replete with references to these themes.
Our Constitution affirms that “the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be a state based on the principles of democracy and social justice” and also asserts that “the State social order is founded on ideals of Freedom, Equality and Justice.”
Our nation’s history over the past sixty years may be interpreted as a struggle to realize these lofty proclamations and to ensure the practical manifestation of our constitution’s provisions, especially in framing what citizens can reasonably expect from the state and what the state can legitimately expect of the citizenry.
Inspired by constitutional imperatives, we have created institutions such as Federal Government Colleges otherwise known as Unity Schools and the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), to foster cohesion and solidarity among our diverse people and we have instituted the Federal Character principle in our constitution to govern the democratization of opportunity, participation and representation in our public institutions.
Yet despite all these efforts, we have not always lived up to the injunctions of the Constitution. There are many who feel that we are still far from the society of our aspirations, where people feel that they are bound by the same rules and held to the same standards, whether it is in the allocation of reward or the infliction of sanction. It is fair to say that too many of our people do not feel this way, especially with regard to the distribution of social and economic opportunity.
I want to say to you all that we are alive and here at a time in history when our society must complete the unfinished task of resolving the issues that face us such as the issues of structural poverty, entrenched inequality, disparities in access to social and economic opportunities, fractured access to justice, and in some cases, exit from the justice system and the diminishing faith in governing institutions – all of which are creating profound radical discontent with the social order. Much of the discontent that we have are distributional conflict and I want you to bear that expression in mind, distributional conflicts- ignited by the struggle for access to tangible and intangible resources – access to jobs, opportunities, and the various resources that the state can offer.
We see the various manifestations of such discontent when Nigerians are denied opportunity on the basis of their state of origin or because they are “non-indigenes.” We see it when a Nigerian that has been resident in a state all his life is suddenly excluded from admission into an educational institution or an employment opportunity because he is not considered an “indigene.” Or when a young Nigerian that has served in a particular state during his NYSC year is suddenly excluded from opportunity because he or she is dubbed a “non-indigene” of the state. Or when there is a perception or reality of ethnic or religious domination of opportunities or access. These episodes of unfairness undermine national unity and stoke deep resentment.
We must begin to detect the ways in which we perpetuate institutional discrimination and cause people to see their ethnicities and religions as weapons for procuring opportunity at the expense of others. We must also recognize how our system incentivizes the practice of prejudice. Because people are forced to emphasize their ethnic and religious identities to access opportunity, there is a huge incentive to engage in identity politics and to mobilize along even smaller group identities when we should be galvanizing national solidarity. Identity politics itself is innately divisive because it turns people against each other and makes them aliens and strangers.
The framers of our Constitution clearly understood the value of civic mutuality and wrote a number of provisions aimed at promoting national solidarity. For example, Section 15(2) stipulates that “national integration shall be actively encouraged whilst discrimination on the grounds of place of origin, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association or ties, shall be abolished.”
Section 15 (3) further enjoins the Government to “secure full residence rights for every citizen in all parts of the Federation” and even to “encourage inter-marriage among persons from different places of origin, or of different religious, ethnic or linguistic association or ties.” In light of these pronouncements, it is clear that the promotion of national unity for progress and prosperity is a constitutional imperative.
The lessons that we have learned over the past six decades are unimpeachable. The classification of Nigerians as “indigenes” and “non-indigenes” contradicts our declared aspirations towards unity in diversity. So is any form of preferment on the basis of belief or religion. All that should matter in evaluating ourselves is where we live and fulfill our civic obligations. This is why when we commenced the Social Investment Programmes in 2015, eligible beneficiaries were put through an open process, where they were required to apply online and selected based on their states of residence and none was discriminated against on any basis.
We have also learned that while representation is important in giving people a sense of belonging, merit must be the first criteria for entry and advancement in our public institutions, for it is only institutions that run on a preponderantly meritocratic basis that can meet the complex challenges of the public service. The challenges of the public service are indeed complex, we have to deal with an economy that has to cope with the cyclical changes not just in a macroeconomy, but cyclical changes all over the world. People who are best trained for the economy must be put forward; people who are best trained to handle the social challenges must be put forward.
In the same way we pick a football team to win, we don’t ask about people’s religion when we want to win in football, we don’t ask about indigenes, we just choose the best. That is the same way we must treat our lives; our lives are more important than even football. The success of our country is more important than football. So, we shouldn’t be asking those sorts of questions in bringing people on board to work for our nation and to work for our public service. The simple question should be, is this person competent? And then we can deal with the issues of federal character not as the rule, but as the affirmative exceptions to merit.
Besides, there is a consensus in the Federal Government, that we must open up the processes of admission to public institutions and benefits to scrutiny and we must ensure that the federal character commission lives up to its mandates.
We also realise that it is the duty of government to assure the security of lives and livelihoods and to ensure law and order and guarantee the rule of law. To this end, I must say that we have come a long way in restructuring and reviewing the structure of our security systems. Also, we have come a long way in rehabilitating and beefing up our security hardware. We have also gone quite a way in the continued engagement with the States in respect of community policing and ensuring speedy prosecution and disposal of cases.
I must come also to the question of what we must do as citizens. Those of us who desire a united peaceful and prosperous Nigeria, and I know that we that are in the majority, must confront the everyday injustices that mock our aspirations and erode our confidence in a shared future.
And it is important that we do not raise our voices only when we perceive the rights of our own group to have been violated. We must make common cause with other groups when they are injured because our rights are rooted in universal principles that cannot be selectively applied. In any case, rights that are selectively applied can also be subsequently selectively taken away from us. Nothing fosters solidarity like the knowledge that other people will rally to our aid and help fight our battles in the name of our common humanity. We must not divide ourselves on any other basis but our common humanity must be the force that brings us together.
We must also reject the idea that some Nigerians have to lose in order for some other Nigerians to win and that some Nigerians have to be deprived in order for some Nigerians to prosper. We can all win and we can all live in prosperity. Nigeria will work for each of us but it will do so only when it works for all of us.
All of us, whether we are in Government or in civil society or in business, have a stake in working for the emergence of a united peaceful and prosperous Nigeria. In every diverse society, a measure of conflict and discord is inevitable. This is the natural social consequence of our differences brushing up against each other. Whether these tensions become teachable moments for learning more about ourselves or they explode into implacable conflicts, depending on how we address these tensions.
We must resist the temptation to demonize whole groups by judging them by their most extreme fringes. We must resist the urge to portray communities in caricatures and all manner of self-serving profiles. It is important to stress that when an individual commits a crime, he or she does so as an individual and not as a representative of an ethnic or religious community.
As citizens, there are moral choices upon us. Are we using our influence to promote measured voices of reason or are we amplifying the voices of divisive hate-mongers? The choice before us is clear. We have a responsibility to help our neighbours and compatriots rise above prejudice and to grasp the skills of harmonious coexistence in a plural society. We must also intentionally marginalize the agents of intolerance and hatred and counter their attempts to influence impressionable hearts and minds.
In the business of shaping the future, it is important to note that the collective wisdom and realism we have acquired through bitter experience are not the only tools at our disposal. Making the future is also about the idealism, faith, vision and intuition especially of young people. It is very much about how young Nigerians define their prospects and possibilities; how young Nigerians see their future, how they envision the next few years and decades.
Again, I turn to our Constitution, section 15(3) of the Constitution mandates the government to “provide adequate facilities for and encourage free movement of people, goods and services throughout the Federation.”
The Federal Government is presently investing in expanding our road and rail infrastructure to connect people from otherwise far-flung places and reduce the geographical and psychological distances between our citizens. We recognize that trade and travel are important ways in which people form bonds and forge cohesion. Even as we build physical infrastructure to connect our people, young people (and I must say commendably) are exploiting the potential of technology as an integrative tool.
I am gratified by how young Nigerians are using social media to create new models of mutuality and solidarity. They are establishing interpersonal, social and commercial relations that transcend the parameters of ethnoreligious identity and geography. They are crowd-funding for various causes from agriculture to medical treatment for those that cannot afford it, to telemedicine, to helping to sponsor the careers and academic aspirations of people who otherwise lack the means. They are engaging in public enlightenment campaigns and social justice advocacy, demanding accountability from public servants and sharing beneficial information with each other. In short, through social media, young Nigerians are articulating themselves in bold ways and expressing our great capacity for resourcefulness, compassion and creative collaboration.
We have no greater weapon in our arsenal than your capacity to constantly question the status quo, to constantly say that we can do better, to constantly reimagine the reality of our country, to constantly reshape our thinking about the future.
The mishaps and tragedies that we have suffered over the past sixty years have left many of our people burdened by cynicism and pessimism. I urge you to guard your hearts and protect your capacity for idealism and creative optimism. These are the tools with which you will build the Nigeria of your dreams and all our dreams. We have a future worth fighting for.
In particular, your capacity for innovation matters. As I noted earlier, many of the threats to our national unity are conflicts over the distribution of resources. As resources become scarcer, identity-based claims to a share of the national patrimony become more aggressive and lead increasingly to conflict. Under these circumstances, we are liable to see each other as competitors and rivals, instead of compatriots and eventually we begin to demonize each other as “enemies.”
With a population of about 200 million, and with our country on track to be the third most populous nation on earth in a few decades, the challenge for us is creating the opportunity for the huge number of people that increasingly need education, food, healthcare and employment. This is where your capacity to innovate comes in.
Your generation has what it takes to move us away from the destructive and unproductive rent-seeking attitudes that engender conflict and unto the terrain of enhanced productivity.
Your generation has the tools to usher in a new age of abundance and wealth creation that will lift our society beyond the hunger-induced and poverty-inducing squabbles over a national cake that we are all supposed to build but somehow, many expect will build itself.
As Nigeria seeks to find her proper place in the world in the 21st century, you are our nation’s most important resource. It is because of you that a united, peaceful and prosperous Nigeria is very possible.
Thank you very much for listening.